Today marks the 70th anniversary of Operation Neptune, the code name for the Allied landings in Normandy. The D-Day invasion, the first phase of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of continental Europe, successfully deployed over 150,000 troops via over 1,200 aircraft and 5,000 landing craft to the coast of German occupied France, on June 6, 1944.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), began planning what was to be the largest amphibious invasion in human history less than six months prior to D-Day. To pull it off required exceptionally detailed logistics, developing and employing new technology, training, operational security to insure surprise, deception, and to some extent plain luck (with bad weather nearly forcing the cancellation of the operation).
The leadership of General Eisenhower during WWII is an inspiration to many, with three notes he wrote on the eve of D-Day — one well known while the others less so — provide insight into his leadership style.
Prior to the departure of the troops for the invasion, General Eisenhower provided the following message of encouragement to the troops:
“Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!
You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened, he will fight savagely.
But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man to man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our home fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to victory! I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory!
Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”
— Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Eisenhower’s “Order of the Day” has become a historically-significant rallying message for the American forces in this monumental operation, and sheds light on the elements of his strong leadership skills.
An earlier draft of the message provides us an insight into his thoughts, as he reordered parts of the message:
This draft reveals another aspect of his leadership — understanding the power of words, made apparent in his revisions. Another drafted message, never sent out, reveals yet another strength of his leadership: preparing for the worst.
While not as well know, Eisenhower also drafted a message in case the invasion failed. On D-Day +35, Gen. Eisenhower came across the forgotten note, a piece of history likely to have been lost, had it not be saved by his naval aide, Capt. Harry C. Butcher.
While dated July fifth, this was likely written on June fifth (the originally planned D-Day), since by the beginning of July over one million men had been deployed to France, and momentum was on the side of Eisenhower's forces. The note read:
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
Had the invasion failed, another would not have been possible, based on necessary tidal conditions, moon phase, and weather, for another year. During that time, the Soviets would have driven west to Berlin, and likely to the Rhine, and possibly as far as the North Sea and English Channel, resulting in all of continental Europe behind the Iron Curtain.
As a lesson to the rest of us in leadership, Eisenhower trained and motivated his organization for success, though recognized the chance of failure. In case of failure, he was prepared to accept the ultimate responsibility.
Through preparation and ownership of decisions made, we can prepare to succeed. Doing so aids leaders and their organizations in moving forward; without it, we are succeeding to fail.